HomeTravelHow a female Buddhist monk became one of Asia's most revered chefs

How a female Buddhist monk became one of Asia’s most revered chefs

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(CNN) — It’s a busy Saturday morning for Jeong Kwan, a South Korean Buddhist monk.

After her early morning meditation follow and breakfast, she tends to her backyard inside Baekyangsa, a temple on the scenic Naejangsan National Park, south of Seoul.

The air is stuffed with the scent of blooming coriander flowers. A wild deer nibbles on the leaves within the backyard.

The eggplants and inexperienced peppers are rising. The cabbages she planted within the winter are plump and able to be harvested.

“It is beautiful because it has a lot of energy — it has grown through the cold winter,” the monk tells CNN Travel by means of a translator, pulling her palms aside to display the dimensions of this yr’s cabbages.

The unintended star chef

Jeong Kwan devoted herself to Buddhism when she was 17 years outdated.

Courtesy Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants

Jeong Kwan — her Buddhist identify — is not your common monk. Her temple cooking has been endorsed by famed chef Éric Ripert of Le Bernardin in a 2015 New York Times profile written by meals journalist Jeff Gordinier. An total episode of the favored Netflix sequence, “Chef’s Table,” was dedicated to her.
Most just lately, she was the recipient of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Icon Award in 2022. Voted for by greater than 300 members of the Award’s academy, it celebrates culinary figures who’ve influenced and impressed others positively.

Yet little has modified in her world.

“I am extremely honored to receive the Icon Award… As you already know, I am a monk, not a trained chef. It’s wonderful to hear that people all around the world are interested in Korean cuisine,” says Jeong Kwan.

“Even with such accolades, I need to stay humble and not let pride into my heart. Genuine sincerity is how I greet every person I meet.”

The chef devoted herself to Buddhism in 1974, although says she nonetheless seems like a teenager at coronary heart — even when her age and her spirituality have grown.

Unlike many, she already had a sense of the life she needs to stay at a younger age. She was in elementary faculty when she advised her father that when she grows up, she would stay alone with nature.

When Jeong Kwan was 17 years outdated, her mom handed away.

“I grieved and after 50 days I went to a temple. There, I met other monks who became my new family. I found enlightenment and joy in practicing Buddhism. I then decided that this is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life, practicing Buddhism,” she says.

Three years into her follow, she moved to her present dwelling, Baekyangsa.

“The path to the temple was very gentle — not bumpy or steep. I felt very calm and peaceful. It was like returning to my mother’s arms,” Jeong Kwan recollects of her first stroll to Baekyangsa.

That was 45 years in the past.

What is temple delicacies

All of Jeong Kwan's dishes are vegan.

All of Jeong Kwan’s dishes are vegan.

Courtesy Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants

In 2013, Jeong Kwan determined to open the doorways of the temple to guests so she might join with individuals who wish to study Buddhism — particularly by means of its delicacies.

“Temple food is the connection that brings physical and mental energy together. It is about maximizing the taste and nutrition from plant-based ingredients with limited seasoning or added condiments,” she says.

“Temple cuisine is part of my Buddhist practice and the journey of finding one’s self. The people who cook and the people who eat the temple food are all on a journey to find out ‘Who am I?’ I think Korean temple cuisine connects people together and will continue to play that role.”

All of Jeong Kwan’s dishes are vegan and made with out garlic, onions, scallions, chives or leeks. (It’s believed that the 5 pungent components would disturb the thoughts’s peace by evoking anger and keenness.)

Her meals is made with the freshest natural components in addition to fermented sauces and dishes like bean paste and kimchi — all grown or made within the temple.

There’s no set menu — she works with no matter produce is recent that day so dishes differ broadly.

Jeong Kwan believes that meals can assist steadiness components in our our bodies by restoring our moisture or decreasing our physique temperature to a harmonious state. One instance is doenjang — Korean fermented bean paste — which the monk makes use of typically to create this steadiness in her meals. But making doenjang is a lengthy course of.

She and the opposite temple residents start by boiling and mashing soybeans in November. Then they’re molded into meju — soybean bricks — for drying and storing. In April, salted water is added to the meju. In May, the monks within the temple separate the salted water — which at this stage is now soy sauce — from the bean paste.

“If you come visit, you will see the part of the temple where we store all the traditional ingredients — pastes and sauces — in pots. I have them all labeled so they are very organized. It is a very beautiful place,” says Jeong Kwan, her eyes lighting up as she talks about her meals.

“This year’s bean paste is very delicious because the weather has been perfect. It is super sunny in the daytime and still quite chilly in the evenings.”

She has jars of soy sauces, bean pastes and picked radishes which have been brewing in jars for greater than twenty years now. These are her most treasured creations within the temple.

“I will bring them if I have to move to another temple one day,” jokes Jeong Kwan.

“It is the work of nature. It’s magical how by fermenting, you change the energy of the original ingredient. The picked radishes no longer have the energy of the radishes but they have incorporated the energy of the fermented sauces and then they harmonize our bodies.”

Buddhism and human connections by means of meals

"For me, food is so important. It can bring such a strong connection between people," says Jeong Kwan.

“For me, food is so important. It can bring such a strong connection between people,” says Jeong Kwan.

Courtesy Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants

Jeong Kwan realized she had a ardour for meals from a younger age, when she would watch her mom cook dinner.

In 1994, she determined to completely dedicate herself to temple cooking.

“For me, food is so important. It can bring such a strong connection between people,” says Jeong Kwan.

One of her most cherished reminiscences is a temple go to from her father.

“‘Why would you want to stay here — you can’t even eat meat here?'” she recollects him asking.

“I made a mushroom dish for him and after he tasted it, he said, ‘I’ve never tasted something so delicious. If you can eat something so tasty here, I won’t be worried about you. I’m happy for you to stay in the temple.'”

But not all of her greatest food-related reminiscences befell in her personal kitchen. Jeong Kwon has been in a position to take pleasure in some unbelievable meals whereas touring abroad.

One time at Paris restaurant Alain Passard, the famed French chef of the identical identify cooked a vegan meal for her.

“As I was eating, I felt like this is my food. There was no barrier in food. It is very comforting and I felt very at home,” says the monk.

She additionally holds a particular place in her coronary heart for Le Bernardin’s Ripert.

“Chef Éric was one of the people that had really set me free with my food. He helped break down any thoughts that people might have had against temple cuisine or vegan food. He really helped me break out of my shell,” says the monk.

To be free is not about “doing whatever you want,” Jeong Kwan provides.

“It’s not feeling caged by remorse and guilt because you’re not following the practices you believe. So following all the virtues of my practice is what makes me truly free,” she says.

One primary instance for her is cooking with an understanding of the pure life cycles in addition to following the Buddhist virtues and teachings.

‘Cooking shouldn’t be about being fancy’

Jeong Kwan hopes she can use her newfound influence to encourage others to be more environmentally conscious.

Jeong Kwan hopes she will be able to use her newfound affect to encourage others to be extra environmentally acutely aware.

Courtesy Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants

Jeong Kwan feels her philosophy is particularly necessary within the present world, stuffed with challenges just like the pandemic, worldwide conflicts and local weather change.

“We had pandemics and epidemics before. I believe this is all correlated to our actions going against nature,” says the monk.

She thinks society ought to deal with three necessary issues: to deal with local weather change, be extra environmentally pleasant and respect all lives.

“[By doing all three,] it will be able to help set us back on the right track,” says Jeong Kwan.

Eating and cooking mindfully will allow us “to do everything we need spiritually and physically” even at instances of adversity.

She hopes that she might use her new discovered affect to unfold these necessary messages to the world.

“To me, cooking is not about being fancy or showing off difficult skills but becoming one with the ingredients. When I am cooking, I think of the ingredients as if they are a part of me. When using water and fire to cook vegetables, I feel we have become one.

“The coronary heart and soul put into the meals might be acquired by the individuals who eat it and create a constructive and sustainable cycle,” says Jeong Kwan.

Her aim? To see others adopt a lifestyle that honors and respects nature and our environment, promotes a sustainable lifestyle and has a positive effect on climate change and saves lives.

“In order to do that, I would like to vary. Small actions begin from myself and I hope I will share this with extra individuals around the globe, together with the fantastic chefs within the Asia 50 Best group,” says Jeong Kwan.

Baekyangsa is a temple within the scenic Naejangsan National Park, about a 3-hour bus ride from Seoul. There is an entrance fee of KW3,000 (or $2.5) for daytime visitors. You can also join one of its temple keep applications, together with the Temple Food Experience program that includes a cooking class with Jeong Kwan.


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